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An Inquiry into the Role of Public Space in Combating Loneliness

Time: Thu 2023-06-08 09.00

Location: Kollegiesalen, Brinellvägen 8, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Planning and Decision Analysis, Urban and Regional Studies

Doctoral student: Jing Jing , Urbana och regionala studier

Opponent: Professor Fran Tonkiss, LSE The London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Sociology

Supervisor: Associate professor Tigran Haas, Urbana och regionala studier; Professor Emeritus David Canter, University of Liverppol; Associate professor Lena Dahlberg, School of Health and Welfare, Dalarna University; Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University

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QC 230516


Loneliness in cities has been an issue of great concern in public discourse, particularly during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The detrimental impact of loneliness on health and well-being is well documented and has recently become a rising priority for governments worldwide. Recent literature on the impact of the built environment on loneliness has primarily focused on aspects related to neighborhood and mobility. This thesis makes a novel contribution to the understanding of how to mitigate loneliness in cities by focusing on public space. Urban design and planning play a role in shaping inclusive and accessible public spaces, which promote social interactions in various forms needed to tackle loneliness.

This thesis aims to inform how urban design and planning strategies can potentially impact levels of loneliness experienced in cities. It presents five articles that provide new insights, methods and theoretical frameworks for urban design and planning to tackle loneliness. The cover essay synthesizes key learnings, potential applications of findings, and next steps to advance the research agenda to address urban loneliness.

Case studies at the neighborhood and city levels were performed to explore both direct and indirect linkages between loneliness and public space. The empirical work carried out in the City of Stockholm, Vienna, and Zurich underscores the spatial dimension of care practice in the everyday life of older adults. Several key common findings have emerged across the case studies. First, public space is an environmental resource that holds the potential to mitigate loneliness in all settings, but its management must be aligned with the local specificness and cultural context. This understanding also suggests that reduced access to desired public spaces may contribute to heightened loneliness. Second, the design, management, and use of public space affect the objective quality of public space and influence its perceived quality. Planning must therefore consider the complexity of how people perceive public space, including their responses to the physical, action, and cognitive facets of place. Third, this study reveals some useful key constructs, such as nature, walking, physical activities, seeing/meeting people, commercial, and ambivalence, which are the underlying components associated with place that can be relevant to the desirability of spending time in a place for those experiencing loneliness.

The Stockholm case studies highlight that easily accessible local third places can support feelings of independence and safety, and facilitate social and physical activities for community building (meaningful social connection). As such, these are found to be positive resources for combating loneliness among older adults. Familiarity, and related constructs, such as homeness and neighborhood attachment, are also significant for both young and older adults when they consider places to go during times of feeling lonely. Urban design and planning can help transform neighborhood streetscapes to serve as social infrastructure, delivering higher social and well-being values for all.

Collectively, these findings offer nuanced insights to improve the understanding of loneliness from an environmental approach. Urban policymaking, investment, design, planning, and development should consider public space as a promising pathway to combat loneliness. Place-based intervention strategies focused on enabling thriving public spaces will be critical for urban areas to reduce loneliness worldwide.